Life is not a story. This seems obvious but too often we expect our lives to make some sort of narrative sense or to fit into some bigger, clearer picture that we just can’t see yet. It’s in our nature to want to put an order to things, to find meaning from seeing the pieces together. But, in real life, sometimes good and bad things just happen without rhyme or reason. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film that wants to remind audiences of these simple but powerful truths through the story of a mother who will stop at nothing to avenge her daughter’s death.
RAPED WHILE DYING
AND STILL NO ARRESTS?HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?
These are the three simple sentences that end up on three billboards and shake the normally quiet town of Ebbing to its core. Who’s responsible? Mildred Hayes (Francis McDormand), a bitter mother who is furious the police have not found a single suspect seven months after her teenage daughter Angela was brutally raped and murdered. The local police are obviously very upset with this public questioning of their job ability, especially Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) himself, who feels that Mildred’s personal attack is entirely unjustified. Mildred ran out of shits to give months, most likely years, ago; she wants answers and seeks to keep the case in the public eye, in whatever way possible.
This may sound like an extremely dark premise for a movie. And it is. But anyone familiar with director Martin McDonagh’s previous work (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) know that he thrives on finding every possible emotion in even the most horrific situation imaginable. Three Billboards is an unquestionably sad movie but it is also angry, joyful, and even, at times, downright hilarious.
It’s also a movie full of meticulous twists and turns, where every time you think you have it figured out, another unexpected wrench is tossed into its machinery. In one scene that sums up the movie’s philosophy as a whole, Chief Willoughby is attempting to explain himself and the lack of arrests to Mildred. Instead of assuring her they will find the killer, he says that cases like this are rarely solved based on good detective work. That means real answers are brought to light through nothing but dumb luck. It’s a message for all of us just as much as Mildred. Anyone looking for convenient answers or a neatly constructed ending should probably check out The My Little Pony Movie instead.
One of the most compelling aspects of Three Billboards is the fact that the movie only has one obvious bad guy: the irredeemable and unknown assailant who raped and murdered Angela Hayes. As in real life, the cast of characters, including Mildred herself, is neither entirely good or entirely bad. The people we meet are complicated beings who make decisions that don’t always align with the narrative we’ve built for them.
At first, Chief Willoughby seems to be the lazy cop who gave up on Angela’s case too easily. But there he is later being a devoted husband and father, as well as a man who genuinely wishes he could crack the case. Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an idiot cop who seems to delight in racism and police brutality, is ultimately revealed to be something much more than that.
And Mildred is certainly far from a perfect hero. So focused on her goal, she often misses the way it may be affecting the people around her. Along her journey, she isolates almost everyone in her life, including her teen son Robbie, who is upset with the way his sister’s death is being put on display. But at the end of the day, Mildred is willing to justify her callousness and prickly demeanor if it brings her any closer to what she is looking for.
The entire movie rests on the performance of Frances McDormand, who brings Mildred to life with a staggering complexity. From the moment she appears, dressed in overalls and bandana, Mildred is a clenched fist, ready to strike at any moment. She casually kicks kids in the crotch, wounds a dentist, goes toe-to-toe with police officers who make it their mission to torture her as much as possible. Yet with every subtle twitch or twinge, McDormand also manages to show the underlying grief and pain that’s fueling Mildred. It’s an incredible performance.
Three Billboards is a film that revels in the fact that no matter who you are or what you’ve done, you are ultimately at the mercy of an indifferent and chaotic universe. It’s a bit Coen Brothers-esque but unlike that dynamic duo, McDonagh does not simply shrug his shoulders at this overwhelming enemy. Instead, he seems to suggest that the most effective way to fight against the randomness of life is by treating others well. That lesson is learned in messy ways; but, in any case, it’s a powerful one to learn.